Been There! -- Advice for PE Exam Candidates from Recent Examinees

This page is a compilation of comments contributed by engineers who have recently taken the PE exam. Some of the advice may seem contradictory—sometimes engineers disagree. Nobody received compensation for mentioning any product.

As you read this advice, keep in mind that the exams change from administration to administration. Subjects that are emphasized on one exam may not show up at all on the next exam. If you would like to contribute to this compilation, email us with the subject line “PE Exam Advice.” In the body of your email, please note your exam discipline and exam date.

Here are links to a few exam-specific advice pages:

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Common Exam Surprises and Misconceptions

The guidelines that NCEES provides for what percentage of each subject will appear on the exam are ONLY guidelines! In fact, they’re probably averages (since the tests vary from one administration to another). The exam I took definitely was NOT broken into the percentages that NCEES stated. If I’d known this going in I would have studied more across the board, rather than concentrating on just a few high-percentage topics.

The questions on the exam are in no special order. Every subject is scattered throughout the exam.

Some of the practice problems I had worked before the exam had a problem statement followed by 10 or so related questions. That is not what the exam was like. I was surprised to find that the exam questions were nearly all individual.

There were no units given on the answer choices for each problem. You need to be on your toes to make sure you don’t pick an answer that reflects the WRONG units.

I was surprised how many questions asked for the answer that was most nearly correct. This can be quite tricky. Make sure you understand what’s being asked for.

I passed but I felt underprepared for the afternoon portion.

Studying for the Exam

I think the biggest issue with test is being able to time yourself and test taking skills. I am a Chemical Engineer and have been out of school for 13 years. My biggest issue is working through the material strategically and not wasting time on materials irrelevant to the test.

First, get familiar with the exam format. Being a normal person who knows how questions are going to be asked is more important than being a genius who doesn’t. Know what subjects are going to be covered and how.

Take the exam seriously. You can pass it the first time if you study hard and work many problems. Don’t waste your time taking it if you are not prepared to really work.

Preparing for the PE exam is like trying to lose weight. It’s no use looking for easy gimmicks to help you pass, because there aren’t any. Just get the right books, make yourself a schedule, and start studying!

Having taken the exam three times now, I can say that the exams do differ significantly in what subjects are covered and to what degree. Don’t expect the exam you take to be just like the one your co-worker took six months ago. The general topics areas stay the same, but everything else is up for grabs. Study accordingly. (I just passed!)

Don’t listen to people who have taken the exam once and say “They always ask...” The test changes a great deal from sitting to sitting. Review everything you can.

Start your review by going over theory. Then read through example problems in your reference manual and textbooks. Then actually work practice problems. Two or three weeks before the exam, work a practice exam or two.

Start by working practice problems, and then refer to your reference manual to find out how to solve these problems. Don’t just read through the book and then work the problems. You will spend a lot more time and not get much more out of your studying.

There is grave danger in studying what you know well already, particularly for folks like me who have been out of school for two decades. Resist the temptation to focus on just one or two areas, since this will restrict your ability to pluck low-hanging fruit in other areas.

No matter what anyone tells you, you can’t learn it all. Pick your areas of expertise and focus on them hard. Study your strengths; know them cold.

Find your strengths and hit those hard. You don’t have to study everything, but what you do study, know well. Do problems, problems, problems, and for each one, figure out WHY it is solved that way.

Practice determining solutions methods. Crunching all the numbers and working the problems is great, but most important is to practice determining the METHODS to solve the problems. What are the steps you will take?

Work—don’t just read through—lots of practice problems. If you simply scan through problems, they may seem easy—but when you actually try to solve them on your own, they’re much more difficult.

Be prepared for problems on the exam that you have no idea about. Try not to let tough problems on esoteric concepts unnerve you. The exam seems to be testing you on obscure concepts to see how quickly you can look them up in a reference book. Being able to think fast, on your feet, is essential.

Take a review course if you can. If you can’t, make and stick to a study plan.

Sign up for email updates. That was the only way I found out about the new exam format!

Use the Exam Forum! This is an excellent source of exam information. Being able to ask questions and chat with others preparing for the test helped me immensely.

The Exam Forum is a great place to get help on a study problem you may be stuck on. Someone out there can usually explain it and help you out.

The Forum is essential to anyone’s review. Ignore it at your peril.

Preparing Your Materials

There are a surprising number of “definition” or “theory” problems on these multiple-choice exams. You just need to know the subject, or be able to look it up quickly. Be prepared to pick up points on these kinds of questions by bringing a manual with a good index, and/or a good engineering dictionary.

Check with your state board to find out whether you can bring loose papers or three-ring binders into the exam room. This apparently varies a lot among states. Having your own three-ring binder of material is very helpful.

Flag important equations and tables in your books so that you can quickly find the equations you need to solve a problem.  I also created a hand-written notebook of important equations which was really helpful.  I used my hand-written notebook and my Chemical Engineering Reference Manual for the majority of the exam.  Pace yourself so that you complete 10 questions per hour.  And study, study, study!  Over a year, I did each of the Practice Problems for the Chemical Engineering PE Exam twice and took the NCEES practice exam.  By the time I took the PE exam, I felt very well prepared. 

Know where all your information is during the exam. Train yourself to be efficient using your references. That’s half the battle—just being able to get quickly to the info you need to work the problem, not fumbling around wasting time.

Don’t bother to buy any book that doesn’t have a decent index. Lindeburg’s books have great indexes. Don’t underestimate how much a good index will help you. You’ll save time studying and during the exam.

I photocopied the index to my reference manual and kept it separate. During the the exam, I had both the index and the main text open in front of me. Definition problems call for a lot of use of the index. It’s great to have it available at all times.

If you are taking one of the depth exams that requires use of codes (like the civil and structural exams), get the code books ahead of time, and be sure to get the correct editions. This really matters, and some of the older codes that the exam references can be tricky to find.

Tab your reference manual (with permanent tabs, not sticky removable tabs, which often aren’t allowed) so you can find things fast. Speed is everything.

Tab, tab, tab your reference manual. Color code your tabs. Time is your enemy in these multiple-choice exams.

Many states (mine among them) don’t let you take solutions manuals of any type into the exam. You can bring the Reference Manual and anything else of that nature, but not the Practice Problems book.

Bring a straight edge to help with reading graphs.

Bring a wheeled suitcase with your books in it. My arms almost fell off trying to carry mine.

Bring a back-up calculator and extra batteries. I couldn’t believe it when the display on my calculator started losing characters during the exam.

Don’t buy an expensive calculator if you do not have time to learn how to use it.

I used a $12.99 calculator that worked just fine. No programs needed. Save your money.

Preparing for the Exam Site

Have all the logistics of exam day well planned. It’s amazing how much better you feel when you’ve already seen the exam site, know where you’re going to park, how you’re going to carry your reference books, etc.

If you live fairly far from the exam site, make a motel reservation and arrive the night before. Being rested that morning, rather than having to worry about traffic and being on time, helps tremendously. Money well spent!

Go to the exam site the day before the exam and (if you can get inside the building) go to the actual location of the test. I did this the day before the exam and found they were changing the room location to a different floor than my exam entry ticket indicated.

Be prepared for the worst possible exam site. Who picks these places—Satan? Bring earplugs, a seat cushion, and all your patience for tolerating the confused proctors.

Wear layers of clothing for the exam--our room was at first way too hot and then way too cold! You need to be able to take clothes off or add them easily.

Bring warm socks--the rooms can be cold.

My exam site (in CA) ran out of the supplied mechanical pencils! Be sure to bring your own, in case this happens to you.

Bring ear plugs. The exam room can be very noisy. I sat next to a guy who grunted every 30 seconds, and it drove me crazy. I will never go into the exam room without earplugs again!

Bring your own lunch. You never know what the food is going to be like on site. This is the only way you can be sure you’ll have something decent to eat, in a timely manner. Carry a thermos with your favorite beverage (well, maybe not beer).

A couple of Power Bars are a real pick-me-up (if your proctors allow you to eat during the exam).

Bring a pillow or cushion to sit on. Those seats get hard.

Getting Your Head in the Game

Don’t study the day before the exam, and get a good night’s sleep.

For the record: ginkgo biloba does NOT help with remembering basic structural concepts.

Having the right mental state of mind on the day of the exam is probably half the battle. The common advice is not to study the day before the exam, but I would even suggest taking two or even three days off before the exam date.

Whatever you do to relax, do it the day before the exam. A clear mind is very important.

Going to a funny movie the day or evening before the exam is a great way to relax. The sillier, the better.

This sounds obvious, but don’t forget to go to the bathroom right before the exam. You don’t want to waste time getting the proctor’s attention and taking a bathroom break when you could be answering questions. And waiting can get mighty uncomfortable.

For breakfast the day of the exam, eat protein and go light on carbohydrates. You can’t afford an energy drop-off three hours into the exam.

What to Do (and Not to Do) During the Exam

Read each problem all the way through to the end. Then start solving. Don’t just dive in. You may be given information at the end that will change what you THINK the problem is about.

Every time you finish with a problem, re-read it to make sure that you actually answered the question that was asked.

When you receive the answer booklet, do not just start answering questions. First, read each question and assign a number at the top of each indicating the difficulty of the problem: 1 for the easy ones, 2 for the medium ones, and 3 for the hard ones. When you’re done, go back and answer all the 1s, then the 2s, and then finally, if you have time, the 3s. (Note: Do not use a letter labeling system A, B, C—for obvious reasons!)

I limited each question to six minutes the first time around. For those I didn’t finish, I wrote down the page numbers in my reference book, and also marked my best-guess answer in the question book before I went on. When I went back at the end to finish the questions, this saved me from having to use the index, and it ensured that my best guess was handy even if I only had a minute to finish.

If anyone tries to tell you that with multiple-choice questions you can always throw out at least two “obviously wrong” answers, don’t believe them! On this exam, for most questions, ALL choices had reasonable numbers, and the “wrong” answers often were the result of incorrect unit conversions. If your calculations arrive at one of the answer choices too easily, check your conversions—this happened to me at least 10 times during the exam.

One thing that cost me a bunch of points was the absolutely stupid idea that I would work the problems in metric (heh-heh) and then translate the answers into English. Suffice it to say, that does not work, even a little.

Don’t get caught by units. In many, many problems, there were two “right” answers listed—but one was not in the units the problem was asking for! Focus on what conversion you may need to make. This is easy to forget. I underlined the units asked for in the problem, so I would remember.

There are no units given for the answers, so be extra careful about reading the question to make sure you pick the answer that matches the units the question asks for.

Don’t be caught by the “factor of 12.” Check the question to see whether you are being asked for the answer in inches or feet (psi or psf, etc.). BOTH answers will absolutely be there in front of you on the test. Pick the one the question asks for!

Be aware that questions on the same subject are NOT all grouped together, so you may end up looking up the same formula multiple times. You can save time by trying to locate similar problems.

Take time to check your calculations. Calculation errors will kill you. I know—I reviewed my last exam and kicked myself for all the stupid avoidable calculation errors!

Don’t leave a single problem blank—there’s no penalty for guessing.

Bubble in your answers as you go! This sounds stupid but it may have just cost me a chance to get licensed. Don’t even wait until the 10-minute warning to start bubbling in your “guess” answers. Human nature will make you want to try to squeeze in a few more problems, and that 10 minutes will be gone before you know it.

DON’T spend your lunch break re-hashing the morning exam in your head. RELAX. Remember, your score is the combination of the morning and the afternoon results. You might even want to avoid discussing the morning exam with your fellow examinees. You’ll want to go into the afternoon session with a clear mind.

What to Do (and Not to Do) After the Exam

Once the morning exam is over and you’ve left the exam room, spend 10 minutes or so of your lunch break writing notes to yourself about what you were good at and what you weren’t. Don’t attempt to recall the exam questions (you won’t have time). Instead, just jot down generalizations, like “Good at all highway problems. Need more work on foundation walls.” Also make note of any references you should have brought but didn’t. Repeat the process after the afternoon exam. This process has two advantages. First, it helps calm your nerves during the lunch break—gives you something constructive to do. Second, knowing what areas you are weak in helps you prepare again, in the event you don’t pass. You won’t get your results for four months. By then, you’ll have long forgotten which areas you needed to review and/or which references you should’ve brought.

Enjoy your favorite beverage. You’ve earned it!

Advice for Repeat Examinees

Judging from some of the repeat takers at work, they failed because they did not learn from their mistakes on the first time that they took the exam. They did not change their study strategies.

Most people who are not prepared the first time don’t change their preparation habits and fail the second time as well.

When I was in a study group of test takers I discovered that one of our repeaters had used the same study schedule (or really lack of, in her case) for the last three times she took the test. When she finally changed her study methods, she passed the exam.

If you were really close when you missed passing, you might just have had a bad day. If you missed it by more than a couple of points, go over what you did to prepare for the exam, work more problems and study more. Also, you might try a review class or study group to keep you more focused and give you an instructor or fellow testers who may be able to see where you are having perceptual problems. You may be missing some fundamentals that are tripping you up.

In my case, I failed the first time by just a few points. I figured that if I studied just a little more I should be able to ace the exam with no problem. I also tailored my studying to the questions that appeared on the previous exam. As a result, I failed again by the exact number of points as the first time. On my third try, when I got serious about studying and not trying to find shortcuts, I finally passed.

Assuming you’re normal, you need to study 20 hours a week for at least three months prior to the test for a passing grade, barely—because it’s a gamble. 80% of what you study will not show up on the test; that’s why you have to study so much. People who barely study sometimes pass because they happen to study the right concentration of things, kinda like picking the right numbers in a lottery. It’s also very important to know where to find everything fast (charts, tables, etc.). I didn’t show up the first attempt, failed my second attempt, and passed my third. I’d probably fail if I took it another two or three times in a row. You must prepare yourself for the best combination of studying and given questions.

Additional PE Exam Resources

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